Repressed memories *Trigger Warning*

If you had asked me two years ago what my thoughts were on repressed memories, I would have told you they were total…. bullshit. I would have told you repressed memories only occurred when a girl had regrets for her lapse in judgement the night before. There is a whole bunch of holes in that statement, but I would learn repressed memories are very real.

They shake your confidence and make you question what you know to be true.

What are they? Repressed memories are defined as memories that have been unconsciously blocked, due to it’s association with a high level of stress or trauma. This theory suggests that even though the individual cannot recall the memory, the memory is still affecting them consciously.

I remember exactly where I was when I had my first repressed memory recovered. It was a normal day…. well normal for us. We were at the lowest of low points for our family. My daughter was deep in processing her trauma. She was changing more and more everyday. More anger, more outbursts. She never seemed happy anymore. Nightmares, phobias, bed wetting and all the effects of her abuse were at their peak. Her behavior was a constant reminder of what happened to her. Her Father and I both were working high stress level jobs. Her baby brother had just turned one. We were both desperately trying to understand and help our daughter and everything seemed to make it worse. Our plates were over flowing. To top it off, we couldn’t articulate our grief and heartbreak to each other, so our relationship was suffering. We both were very much alone at a time we needed to support each other more than ever before. We shared the same goal, but we didn’t know how to come together and unite. This started a cycle of resentment and more isolation.

One night, the kids were sleeping. Their Dad was watching television in the living room and I was sitting on the bed in our bedroom. It was a warm day, so the bedroom window was open to allow the coastal breeze to flow in. I was reading on my phone when I could smell a faint smell of a cigarette. This time, the smell of the cigarette made me feel anxious, dirty and shameful. I instantly had a memory play in mind. This memory had familiar players and places, but the memory itself was brand new. This memory was of my abuse, but abuse I had never remembered until now.

I was in the teal room at my Grandparents house. I was wearing my two piece flowery pajama set. My Dad was laying next to me rubbing my back, then he moved my underwear and pants down to below my knees and began to molest me again. He was laying behind me, with his hands reaching around me and his mouth by my ear. His breathing is deep, wet and slow. His smell is a mixture of alcohol and cigarettes. He got up and began to touch himself, in front of me. His breathing is louder and faster. He was aggressively pleasing himself. His face was scary to 5 year old me. Demon like. He asked me if I liked it. I didn’t. I was scared. I wanted this to stop. I don’t know how a 5 year old has the courage, but this time I let out a very timid “no.” He continued. I stayed frozen. Then he stopped. He got on top of me briefly and molested me again. then he rolled me on my side and got behind me. I remember staring at the hall light in an attempt to disassociate from what was happening to me. One single light surrounded by the darkness of the house. I felt him penetrate me. It felt gentle. Gentler than the way he was touching me with his hands or touching himself. I stared at the light until he was done. He left the room. I don’t remember him saying a word. My underwear and pants still at my ankles, I pulled them back up. I was wet, sticky and alone.

This memory was new. I had never had any memory more than my Dad touching me. My Father had raped me. I kept this new memory inside for months. I saw the replay in my head everyday. Multiple times a day. It felt like it just happened. Again. I googled repressed memories. I read about the theories on whether or not they are real. I doubted myself. I fell hard into isolation and hating the world for what happened to me and then my daughter.

Finally, After another day and night of fights. Fighting with myself, my partner, my daughter, the neighbor- really whoever fell into my path of toxic energy. I hit rock bottom. I wanted to die. I no longer saw myself of any value to my kids, my partner, my friends and family or the world. I didn’t want my daughter to end up this way. To feel this kind of hate for herself. This forced me into therapy. I couldn’t use the words to tell my therapist what happened. I had no problem explaining the molestation, but explaining the rape was different. I just couldn’t get the words out without feeling immense shame. It would take 6 months for me to be able to tell my therapist and my partner. Saying it out loud was the turning point for my healing.

The day I told my therapist the words of what happened to me, was the day I finally allowed myself to FEEL the abuse. Feeling the sounds, the smells, the physical pain… They all were in a section of my brain left untapped for almost 30 years. The trauma and pain of these memories had changed the way I processed interactions in all relationships.

Now it was time to fight.

Triggers on a Tuesday

The word trigger is defined as a small device that releases a spring or catch and so sets off a mechanism.

We are all aware of emotional triggers and you have probably experienced them.

Triggers suck and I don’t mean the slur that is used to describe the lack of emotional intelligence in the younger generation. In some way, we have all experienced an emotional trigger. Maybe, you were out with friends and one makes a comment or joke that fucked you up for the rest of the day. You felt attacked, disliked, shamed, or a host of other negative cognitions about yourself. We all have these. We were all once children and likely all had traumas or mini-traumas and didn’t have the tools to properly process the trauma. In adulthood, when we are reminded of these painful memories, we cope with the pain.

Trauma triggers are things that remind us (on either a conscious or unconscious level) of our original trauma causing us to feel similarly to how we felt at the time of the original trauma. Trauma triggers can be debilitating for the victim and extremely confusing for your loved ones. A trigger can be caused by feelings, actions, smells, objects… you name it.

One example for me is, as an adult, the smell of beer on someone’s breath reminded of my Dad and how I felt during my trauma. It brought on flashbacks and negative thoughts about myself.

Childhood traumatic memories, that are so paralyzing, are not processed normally by the brain. This prevents victims from having the ability to subjectively tie the traumatic events, or the feelings associated with them, to the past event. Due to this faulty processing and storage, when a trauma trigger reminds us of the original trauma, we feel as if we are reliving the trauma in the ‘here and now’ and our reaction is likely to hit us hard emotionally. The responses can be physical/biological, emotional or both. Biological responses can include headaches, stomach aches, nausea, increased heartrate, etc. Emotional responses can include flooding of toxic thoughts, fear, shame, and flashbacks.

In my daughter’s case, her trigger symptoms were both biological and emotional. She would get stomach aches and headaches. She would also scream and cry, bite herself, violently hit herself between her legs, and was checked out. When she got to that point, we could hold her or talk to her. We didn’t understand, I started to think these were some kind of psychotic episode. I talked to her therapist and asked if she thought I needed to see a Psychiatrist for my daughter and explore medications. She educated me on triggers and eased my mind that this was a PTSD symptom that would pass.

I went on a mission to begin to identify all of her triggers. If I could identify them, I could avoid them all together, right? Wrong. I quickly learned a trigger could be something as routine as an ambulance passing by, because maybe, she heard an ambulance when he was hurting her. I thought I could talk to my daughter and she could tell me what her triggers were. Unfortunately, my daughter was 5. She would describe a trigger similar to how she would describe her hate of peas.

We learned that our parenting style would have to change. It would require more patience and talking. Her responses to triggers are sometimes heard as disrespectful- we would have to figure out a way to provide her tools to cope with the trigger, while also teaching her respect and boundaries.

This was hard and a shit show.

We tried a lot of tactics. Most made things worse. What we finally learned was if we gave her a “Relaxation Gummy”, the chewing worked to ground her in a meltdown. Once she is able to calm down, she is apologetic and we are able to talk about what she was/is feeling and what we can do different moving forward. This also fixed our issue with discipline and disrespect. We were now able to calm her before things escalated to a point of needing any discipline. Between you and I, a relaxation gummy is nothing more than a gummy bear. There is nothing in it to make her “relaxed”, but it works for us.

In my case, my triggers impact me with headaches and stomach aches. I also would get depressed and start a toxic coping pattern of unhealthy eating (usually not eating at all) and negative thoughts about myself. My daughter and I started EMDR Therapy (which I will cover in another post) which has significantly helped with the triggers. They are still there, but through therapy we have corrected the processing of the traumatic memories and developed skills to correct the toxic thinking patterns.

I’ll share more on our recovery and coping in other posts as well as therapy. Therapy is not a one size fits all, but I do encourage the act of therapy. Whatever method you choose, I believe you have to FEEL in order to HEAL. To feel you need to become a master in self care. I found that through meditation, journaling, exercise and doing exercises that actively changed my toxic thought patterns.

November 2019 will mark our 2 year anniversary of my daughter’s trauma. We still have some type of reminder everyday of our traumas, but we get better everyday.

The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.

Abraham Lincoln